There was a time, not so long ago, when non leather materials used in fashion, were simply called by their name – polyurethane (PU), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), cork, waxed cotton etc. As time has gone on, more people have become aware of the enormous environmental impact the mass breeding, raising + slaughtering of animals has on the planet. Additionally, there are grave concerns for health of humans + of course, animal welfare, which is often hidden from the eyes of the consumer.
Plant based diets have been embraced as a result of this increased education, and people are looking for fashion that does not use animal products. The use of the term ‘vegan leather’, has increased, based on an overall consumer awareness, and a desire amongst brands, to give a name to their quality items, that evokes a mood of luxury versus the no-frills terms of PU, PVC etcetera.
In order to understand what is termed as vegan leather – let’s start with definitions, and then work through to understanding why a substitute for animal derived leather would even be desired or required.
Firstly, what does 'vegan leather' refer to?
Vegan leather provides a broad brushstroke term for brands to use, to identify their non animal derived materials to the conscious consumer. Any bag that resembles leather-like substance but is not derived from animal skin or products is technically a ‘vegan leather bag’.
At Sans Beast, we choose to use honest, straightforward language, versus the sometimes confusing term 'vegan leather'. This means we'll talk about Eco PU, Cactus derived fabric + Recycled PU. The 'eco' term references the polyurethane coated fabric we use, that is made with non toxic levels of chemicals, does not produce dioxins + adheres to both REACH + Prop65 standards. We've had it independently tested by SGS to ensure the chemical makeup is what the supplier states it is + from Series 8 (August 2021) we moved to a large proportion of our range being made from 58% recycled content, that is GRS certified, water based + solven free. Now, in 2022, 70% of our collection is made from fabrics with this level of recycled content.
However, for the purpose of this article, we recognise that vegan leather is a much used term and we're aware there is sometimes confusion in the market regarding what it means, so for ease of identification, we're using the term so you'll actually find this piece of writing when you're on your search for a broad cross section of information.
What is vegan leather made from?
While ‘vegan leather’ refers to any non-leather material that resembles actual leather, there are many materials that are used to create vegan leather products. Here is our (non exhaustive) list of what’s available on the market now, in varying levels of commercialisation:
Polyurethane (PU) – there are plenty of options in colour, texture + price variation. Polyurethane is also a coating used on some plant based faux ‘leathers’ to give robustness + longevity. It is considered the greener option when compared to PVC, as it does not create dioxins.
PolyVinylChloride (PVC) – the least environmentally ‘friendly’ fabric in the mix. One of the perceived benfits in fashion terms, is that PVC is low priced. It also delivers the 'clear/see through' fashion trend for a low cost.
Pinatex – a fabric that has a substrate made from the felting of pineapple fibres. The substrate can be used on its own, which is where the catchcry ‘my bag is made from pineapples’ emanates; however more commonly used in fashion, are the Pinatex fabric offerings that have a polyurethane coating, that provides the material with water resistance + longevity.
Cactus fabric as a leather alternative – launched in 2019, the founders of Mexico based, Desserto Pelle have engineered a fabric that utilises the dried leaves of cactus, as the key building block for adding to a fabric base. The biomass (dried/ground cactus) is mixed with a water based polyurethane + pigments, to form the surface treatment for the substrate fabric, often being cotton or cotton/polyester. The Desserto cactus material is now being used in the automotive, sporting + of course, fashion, industry to great acclaim.
AppleSkin – along the same lines as cactus fabric (in end product that is, we don't profess to know the inner workings of technical approach for each business), however Italian company, Mabel Industries use apple waste instead of cactus. Polyurethane is still involved in the process, to ensure the fabric is robust + waterproof.
Grape - a material also hailing from Italy, Vegea makes a fabric with a sturdy + appealing handfeel, using the waste material from grape production. Again, polyurethane is required to be mixed with the biomass to support the surface having longevity.
Mango – this innovative business behind Fruitleather Rotterdam, have created a fabric that utilises fruit waste from the food industry to great effect. The material is not waterproof as it stands, it must have a wax coating applied post production. The sheets are relatively small at 60cm x 40cm, when compared to the ongoing meterage one can buy in polyurethane fabrics, however this is entirely workable for small scale pattern pieces.
Cork – one of the lowest intervention plant based materials on the market it seems, as the cork is literally harvested (with great skill + a machete) from the cork oak tree, boiled, shaved + then attached to a substrate, before a sealant is applied to the surface for added durability. The tree re-grows the bark + can be harvested again in approximately 9-10 years.
Sileather - Sileatheris a silicone (a synthetic) coated fabric that has a smooth, sometimes rubbery surface, emulating a matte 'leather like' appearance + handfeel.
Mylo - Mushroom derived material, by Bolt Threads. Using the underground root structure of mushrooms, Bolt Threads have developed mycelium cells to create a supple, biodegradable + (animal) suffering free, alternative to leather. To date (as at April 2022) this 'Unleather' (clever folk at BoltThreads coming up with THAT one!) material is only available for their R+D funding partners; namely Stella McCartney, Lululemon + Adidas.
Lab grown leather – the team at Modern Meadow have been working on bringing biotechnology to the material space ('biofabrication') since the early 2010's. Using lab grown proteins to create the building blocks from which their materials are created, the origin story of ModernMeadow is fascinating, as is their vision.
Is vegan leather durable?
Durability of vegan leather is a fraught subject. Firstly, it depends what material you’re looking at (see earlier reference What is Vegan Leather Made From). Secondly, to be frank, if durability is the only concern when it comes to handbag choice, we’re not going to convince you that PU is a superior option to animal derived leather. Yes it's durable, but it's not bulletproof. We believe ethics + the environment should also rate highly in the consideration spectrum of what handbag to buy. We think the underlying question on everyones’ mind is – does vegan leather act + look the same as leather over time? The answer is totally dependent on how the bag is treated + what the expectations are, around something looking ‘brand new’ after regular wear.
Animal leather can be polished + moisturised, and while this will not return it to brand new, it will reinvigorate a tired looking handbag or pair of shoes. Vegan leather does not have the same trait, as it is either biobased (cork, mango, Pinatex etc) or it is painted fabric, as in PU, for example. Vegan leather can be cleaned + minor scuffs can be either polished out, or covered with shoe polish or the like – which will breathe fresh life into your fashion piece.
We believe the most important aspect to durability – if you care to go cruelty free in your fashion purchases – is taking excellent care of your pieces, rotating them so they’re not worn day in / day out, thus extending their good looks + understanding that a minor scratch here or there is a small price to pay for not contributing to the mass exploitation + environmental degradation that occurs in the raising, feeding, slaughtering, skinning + tanning of animal skins. See, told you it was fraught.
What is eco PU?
Eco PU is the term that forward thinking fabric manufacturers have applied to their synthetic leather collections, that are made with non toxic levels of chemicals. There are a couple of important standards that relate to safe use of chemicals in fabrics, relating to the environment + human health. REACH + Prop65 are two such standards, and our fabrics adhere to these benchmarks.
Vegan leather VS. animal leather
In order to understand what is termed as vegan leather – it's important to understand why a substitute for animal derived leather would even be desired or required. There are a few reasons why brands are choosing to make their products using vegan leather, or synthetic leather, instead of animal leather:
Environmental concerns with how leather is made.
60% of the world's leather comes from developing countries where environmental laws are not as strict as developed countries. Chemicals used in the cleaning / tanning process + runoff into public waterways is hazardous for local communities + people who work or live close to these industries. 90% of the world’s hides are chrome tanned, and this is known to be negative for the environment (and requisite human impact). Chrome tanning allows colour consistency for the finishing of the hide, which makes it commercially popular - however it does not easily biodegrade. Additionally, the amount of water used for animal agriculture is enormous, and as a finite resource, this is detrimental to humans' capacity to access fresh water. You can read more about this issue here. 1 in 9 people across the planet lack access to clean water - as animal agriculture grows in the world (for profit) this will become a profound issue for humanity. Deforestationis the other major concern - trees are being cleared to make way for cattle grazing across the planet, at an alarming rate.
Animal welfare issues.
If we think about 'where does leather come from?', it's unavoidable to think about the impact on animals. The more footage that becomes available to the public relating to how animals are treated in their lives, and in the slaughter process, the greater the interest in non leather options in the fashion + food space. Many shut their eyes to this - I know I did, for most of my life - however the reality cannot be denied, it's an appalling existence for billions of animals on this planet. This is not just related to cows – but sheep, pigs, alligators, crocodiles, snakes, horses + more. As a result of greater education, a desire for cruelty free collections is growing.
Global warming + CO2 emissions.
Leather has a high carbon footprint with CO2 emissions of leather, including cattle farming being 110 KG of CO2 per square metre of leather, and another 17KG of CO2 after the slaughterhouse process (ie when it moves from a hide to finished leather) per square metre of leather. It’s impossible to not count the environmental impact of animal agriculture when assessing leather’s impact – hence the high total emission number of 127 KG of CO2 per square metre of leather. Artificial leather is 15.8KG of CO2 emissions per square metre of fabric. Given ‘artificial leather’ is a broad term, one can assume that this number will go up slightly + down slightly, depending on the actual raw material being used.
Cost.Historically, non leather options that emulate the look + feel of leather, have been used to reduce cost in the manufacturing process. This has changed over the years, as non leather options have improved with greater research + development, and requisite costs have increased. Additionally, the amount of low priced leather has increased – handbags + shoes are big business internationally - with the resultant outcome being a variety of low, mid + high priced options in both leather + non leather options.
Is vegan leather environmentally friendly?
There are many different vegan leather materials that vary in degrees of environmental sustainability. We started the Sans Beast brand with progress over perfection, however it’s important for us to keep pushing, not just for animal free products but for materials that are ultimately polymer free + as earth friendly as possible.
The challenge we all face in the handbags / shoes non leather space, is balancing the desire for fast biodegradability with robustness + longevity. Naturally, you don't want your products biodegrading before you're 'finished' with them, so getting that balance right in the development process is key. This is why polyurethane resin is so often used in the surface treatment, to ensure customer expectations are met regarding the longevity of an item.
For a quick answer however, head to the Global Fashion Agenda 2017 report, showing that synthetic leather (far) below cow leather, cotton + silk in environmental impact. We're also admirers of the Material Innovation Initiative + find their non emotive, fact based reporting to be enlightening.
Lastly, let's address the marketing spin that tells the world animal leather is a convenient byproduct of the meat industry - it is in fact, a highly profitable co-product. When businesses decide to ramp up production to drive profits - as is the way of the world - more animals are bred, raised + slaughtered. 'Farmed' animals are not legally protected against cruelty and in many (many) cases, they cannot exercise the supposed 'five freedoms' of animal welfare (as often asserted by businesses selling leather products).
The future of vegan leather
The many materials used to create ‘vegan leather’ are at various stages of commercialisation – pricing + scale is still a challenge for the accessible priced market, in some instances – and more will no doubt come to market as demand increases. The luxury + big business fashion space have tended to lead the way in these fabrics, based on their large resources (and often having exclusivity agreements on new innovations).
However, there is hope for small businesses as the demand for biomass-derived materials increases and big business adopts these practises (and buys into the materials thus supporting the innovators behind them), making more options available + accessibly priced.
The PETA list of leather alternatives is another great resource for discovering even more options in this space. We'd love to hear from anyone who has further materials or information, to add to the list - as mentioned, our list is not exhaustive, and we are aware there is so much to learn in this space as it evolves.
We continue to ask you to join the revolution + consider beauty without the beast.
There are plenty of brands to choose from, depending on what resonates with you. If you're curious to consider a non animal derived handbag - and our Sans Beast world isn't your thing - consider Stella McCartney, LuxtraLondon, A_C Official, Angela Roi, Vonholzhausen+ Alexandra Kto name but a handful.